Physical Literacy for Everyone

“The smiling faces and high fives when competitors of all abilities cross the finish line is truly exhilarating,” remarks Janis Neufeld, shown above in the helicopter. She’s talking about running, cycling and multi-sport races and she’s seen a lot of finish lines.

Janis is the founder of the Kootenay Adaptive Sport Association (KASA), and lived in the Kootenays in Trail, Kaslo and Nakusp, for many years until recently moving north to Prince George.

Janis has a long history of impressive sport credentials, yet she says it was when she was 41 and attended a conference in Vancouver that she first heard, out loud, what she had always personally known at a cellular level. As Janis explained, for the first time in history, a child born today has a shorter life expectancy than their parents, mostly because of declining mobility and exercise.

The concept of physical literacy offers the tools to change that and helps everybody lead happier, longer and more fulfilling lives. We all know about literacy, being able to read and write, but if you’re like me, you may not have heard of physical literacy. Janis explains it as ‘the competence, confidence and motivation to live an active and healthy life’ and just hearing her talk about this important concept is inspirational.

Adaptive bikes allow riders of all abilities to ride together rather than having separate trails and tracks for different abilities. Photo courtesy of KASA.

Physical literacy is at the heart of KASA. Their second fundamental concept is inclusivity through universal design which, in the context of outdoor spaces, Janis explains as ‘the principle of designing an environment so that it can be used, to the greatest extent possible, by everybody regardless of age or ability.’

What does that mean to you and me? It means accessible outdoor spaces for people with all levels of mobility. It means boardwalks and ramps and gentle grades on hiking trails so that seniors, parents and grandparents pushing baby strollers, or anyone using a walker, crutches or a cane can enjoy the outdoor opportunities the Kootenays offers. A great example is the new boardwalk at Winlaw, B.C.

It means making specialized equipment available to folks who need it, such as adaptive mountain bikes that permit a person with mobility issues to ride a bike. KASA has developed these bikes and has them available for rent.

An adaptive bike in use at Myra Trestles, Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park, southeast of Kelowna.
Spring Hawks is on the hand bike and Mark Fleming and Mike Reideger are on the regular bikes. Photo courtesy of KASA.

One enthusiastic user of KASA’s adaptive mountain bikes is Peter Werkling of Nakusp. Peter has multiple sclerosis and explains that he is not able to ride a regular bike.

“They came to my place and showed me how to use the bike and took me out on the trail. I was able to ride along with other riders on normal bikes.”

“We also own a bed and breakfast, and KASA has taken some of our guests who are in wheelchairs out riding. They loved it. I’ll be going out with KASA this summer and riding some new trails,” said Peter.

Start at the Starting Line

The path from elite athlete to ensuring people of all abilities can enjoy outdoor activities was natural for Janis. It’s all about helping everyone share her passion for sport.

By the age of six, Janis was swimming competitively; when she was 12 she was selected for the National Age Group Elite Development Team and trained 20 hours a week. She specialized in the toughest swimming events, such as the 800 metre freestyle and the 200 metre breaststroke.

In her mid-teens, Janis’ progress in the pool began to plateau and she shifted to competitive cycling. On the cycling track, she became a junior national champion in the individual pursuit, and on the road, a junior national record holder in the individual time trial.

Janis competed in cycling into her twenties at the national and international level but admits, with chagrin, that Clara Hughes (Canadian Olympic gold medalist in both winter and summer games) always beat her.

She took a few years off competitive sports to have four children, and at the age of 31, when she wanted to lose a little ‘baby fat’ she tried her first triathlon. Thanks to her swimming and cycling background she progressed quickly and earned her professional card while completing numerous Ironman and Half Ironman length races.

More recently, Janis began to apply her jaw-dropping energy to  helping others achieve their ambitions in sport. In 2008 she helped found the High Altitude Triathlon Club in Trail, and in 2015 the Nakusp and Area Bike Society. She coached competitive triathlons and founded the Kaslo Runners’ Club in 2010 and the Kootenay Sufferfest Society in 2011. Sufferfest was a multi-sport endurance competition held in the West Kootenays encompassing trail running and mountain biking for athletes of all ages and abilities.

Janis has always been a lover of sports. With her experience in swimming, cycling and multi-sport competition, she appreciated how inclusivity can make sporting events better for everyone and not just athletes with disabilities. Largely through Janis’ energy and enthusiasm, Kootenay Sufferfest strived to become inclusive, hosted an adaptive sport camp, initiated an adaptive mountain bike program and researched various adaptive sport facilities for inspiration.

KASA takes shape

In early 2020, the Kootenay Sufferfest Society went through a name change and reorganization, and KASA was born. The society now focuses on designing and building infrastructure to make outdoor sporting venues more inclusive. The common theme throughout KASA’s efforts is to support physical literacy for the broadest possible spectrum of users.

As Janis explains, the objective of inclusive trails is to provide varying challenges for a broad range of users regardless of ability. The trails that KASA designs enable persons with a disability to enjoy the experience alongside others rather than in a separate space. In this way, all users can share a common, fun experience and interact with each other.

Construction pictures are from the Galena Trail Boardwalk Replacement project in fall 2019 between the New Denver YRB Yard and the drop off point 2 km east along the trail up the Carpenter Creek valley. Under KASA, Janis fundraised and project managed this $250,000 boardwalk replacement project increasing accessibility and inclusion along the trail while replacing failing trail infrastructure. Photo by Jesse Schpakowski courtesy of KASA.

The design work is not limited to trails. KASA has also become an expert in the design and construction of related facilities such as washrooms and picnic tables. KASA partners with municipalities through its social enterprise initiative, Inclusive by Design Corporation.

Mike Riediger, CEO of KASA, explains how adaptive trails benefit communities. “When a community builds an entry level adaptive mountain bike trail, it often becomes the most utilized trail in the entire network because it can be enjoyed by the greatest number of users. Young families with off-road strollers and little kids with run bikes love them. So do seniors and, at the other end of the spectrum, so do trail runners.”

“Adaptive trails offer a gradient of challenge and fun for the greatest number of users. These trails can also assist trail advocacy groups in expanding their stakeholder base and help secure funding.”

Photo by Jesse Schpakowski courtesy of KASA.

An example of a successful KASA project is the recent improvements to the Winlaw Regional Park. In 2020, the Regional District of Central Kootenay retained KASA to design and construct a major upgrade to make the entire park more accessible.

The improvements are nearly complete and include over 200 metres of new boardwalk, 500 metres of resurfaced trails, an accessible washroom and changing facilities, and a river outlook.

In 2019, KASA designed and built an accessible bridge over 35 metres long in a steep canyon on a portion of the Galena Trail near New Denver. A future project is focused on improving accessibility and ‘physical literacy enhanced inclusivity’ at the Cottonwood Lake Regional Park south of Nelson.

The terrain that trail improvements and adaptive bikes make accessible to more people, such as this section of the Galena Trail near New Denver. Photo by Jesse Schpakowski courtesy of KASA.

KASA is a global leader in promoting adaptive mountain biking and the design of the necessary equipment. These bikes tend to be expensive, so KASA offers free demo days where people are offered instruction and a chance to try them out. In addition to one-on-one instruction, KASA offers adaptive mountain bike camps and clinics for groups.

Currently, KASA is also developing a level one adaptive mountain biking instructor/guide certification program. When complete, this program will enable riders with disabilities to become certified to teach and guide other riders and in that way, spread the gospel of physical literacy. This will be important because for the first time, instructor certification will be truly inclusive.

Thanks to Janis and the other folks at KASA, the opportunity to pursue physical literacy is alive and well in the Kootenays and, even better, they’re working to make it available to everyone regardless of ability or experience.

About Alan Ross

Living Here is a solutions journalism project, meaning we write stories that show positive outcomes and efforts to solve something in our communities. Leesa Dean, an instructor in Selkirk College’s creative writing program, suggested a work placement for a couple of her students, Alan and Meredith.

They have been attending our editorial meetings, working on stories, asking questions and contributing to our happy work place for several months now. We’re thrilled to be presenting their first stories finally, and I’m sure they’re thrilled to see them published.

They’ve learned about solutions journalism, story pitches, interviews and photo shoots. We’ve learned that there are many talented writers out there with unique perspectives and story ideas just waiting to be told.

Alan lives in Burton, a community south of Nakusp, where he and his wife own and operate a cidery, apple orchard and sheep farm. He escaped, in broad daylight, from his job as a corporate lawyer in Calgary several years ago. Alan likes to write stories set in small towns in the Kootenays.